It is no surprise that organisations are relying more heavily on consultants to complete or complement their suite of services. It makes sense at a number of levels, including improved efficiency, flexibility and economy. CfOD’s experience in consulting relationships with out clenst is that results improve dramatically when the relationship is a major focus – partnering in the true sense of the word, where each partner takes an appropriate share of the responsibility for the success of the project.
The framework for the success of a mutually beneficial relationship is surprisingly simple, but deceptively difficult to do well. Success or failure lies in an artful dance to manage the mutual interpretation of expectations, boundaries and outcomes and to avoid misunderstanding, disappointment, and blame.
Trust and sustainability are the mainstays of any relationship. In a client-consultant relationship, trust and sustainability rely heavily on both parties being able to define and maintain clear boundaries within which the expectations of the relationship are held.
Whilst contracts are used to document the outcomes of the project task, expectations, such as the way we communicate with each other, how we manage difference and disappointment, how we redefine our relationship as we grow and develop in capacity and capability are also important to articulate as part of the process. Not surprisingly, this level of intimate contact is fraught with anxiety and avoidance and often takes what seems to be a disproportionate amount of time and energy to deal with.
Whilst it is redundant to say that communication is the key to any successful relationship, maintaining authenticity continues to be a challenge for many partnerships. Paradoxically, as the relationship becomes harmonious, intimate and trusting, it can become more difficult to give the tough feedback inevitably required to keep a client-consultant relationship functioning authentically. The more intimate and invested in the relationship we become, the more anxious we are about the risk of rejection if we do not conform to its expectations. Managing the finely tuned boundaries of a client consultant relationship requires conscious awareness and management of the paradox of intimacy.
In managing the boundaries of the relationship, it is imperative that the client maintains the right to supervise the quality of work and demands ongoing evaluation towards the achievement of outcomes. The consultant has to be able to hear tough feedback in the spirit of continuous improvement and engage with the client in joint problem solving – each partner contributing to the solution and being able to move out of the tendency to defend a ‘professional’ position. In other words, even as the relationship becomes closer and more functional, each party needs to ‘know their place’, honour their respective toles and remain focused on the agreed outcomes.
Ultimately, a sustainable client-consultant partnership adds value to both partners through a commitment to mutual success and prosperity. It is the genuine involvement in sharing, trust, integrity, and open, honest communication, which makes working in such relationships a real pleasure.
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